Legislation backed by Gov. Susana Martinez to toughen penalties for child murders was gutted by two amendments added by a Senate committee, the governor’s office said Monday.
The governor, a former criminal prosecutor, now is planning to veto the bill, saying the changes threaten public safety. She has until Wednesday to act on legislation passed in the Legislature’s recent 30-day session.
Senate Bill 59, introduced by Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, was intended to allow life-without-parole jail sentences for anyone convicted of murdering a child younger than 13.
Garcia said Monday night she was shocked by the governor’s threatened veto, although she indicated a different understanding of the amendments than the governor’s office.
“Attorneys and district attorneys speak in languages I don’t understand,” Garcia said. “I know what I intended to do with my legislation. If she’s trying to justify her veto, let it be so.”
The original proposal sponsored by Garcia to create new deterrent against child murder was one of the Republican governor’s priorities for the legislative session.
But amendments added in the Senate Judiciary Committee watered down the enhanced child murder penalties, said the governor’s general counsel, Jessica Hernandez.
The weakening was accomplished partly by the addition of language for adult penalties that would limit the stiffer sentence only to cases in which a child was kidnapped before being murdered.
Also, a second amendment would prevent children under age 18 from facing life without parole sentences for first-degree murder convictions, Hernandez said.
“What we really feel is this bill (as amended) gutted the aggravated circumstances this bill was hoping to add,” Hernandez said.
Supporters of the Senate Judiciary Committee amendment to shield children from the longer jail sentences thought the change was needed to recognize that children — even those convicted of murder — should not be held to the same standard as adult criminals, said Sen. Lisa Curtis, D-Albuquerque.
“The concern that came up from members of the committee was that if this is a person under the age of 18, it’s a horrible thing (first-degree murder) but it’s not an adult,” said Curtis, a trial attorney who helped draft the amendment.
“We didn’t want to expose children to it,” Curtis said. “This is a big statement in New Mexico to raise the level of offense like this.”
Curtis said she would be disappointed if Martinez vetoes the bill passed by the House and Senate, which still allows increased penalties for adults convicted of murdering a child.
Martinez’s office, however, says that isn’t the case.
Hernandez points out that current law already allows an enhanced sentence if the victim was kidnapped or sexually abused before the murder. New Mexico requires a mandatory 30-year jail term for conviction of first-degree murder, but allows a jury to extend that sentence to life without parole if it finds an “aggravated circumstance,” such as murder-for-hire, murder after a rape or kidnaping or the killing of a police officer.
The amended bill no longer would allow greater penalties when children are murdered in other circumstances, Hernandez said.
The amended bill passed the Senate on a vote of 37-2 and the House on a vote of 66-0.
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said the bill as passed by the Legislature would weaken public safety by easing penalties instead of increasing them for young offenders. Currently, if a 16-year-old commits murder with aggravating circumstances such as killing a police officer, he or she could face the enhanced penalty of life sentence without parole. The new bill would cap that sentence for all young offenders to 30 years.
Darnell said he believed House and Senate members were unaware of the effect of the Senate Judiciary Committee amendments.
“This bill without question would weaken public safety, and goes against the intent of what was a very good piece of legislation,” Darnell said Monday.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal